The VLSI Archive: Mementos of a Revolution [V 5-27-09]


Guest blog: Lynn Conway




When reflecting back in time with friends and family, we often use albums of snapshots to trigger shared memories – memories that bind us together and reveal how we got to where we are.


But what about the career-adventures of folks in Silicon Valley and beyond? More often than not we see final products of their work, but mementos of what happened along the way are often lost. Only too late do folks realize what “should have been saved.” 


Somehow it was different for the VLSI revolution of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Perhaps it was the exciting visual nature of the artifacts. Whatever the reason, many original treasures from that era have been saved – stored away in people’s attics and basements for decades now – from old notes, to chip photos, to huge color check-plots.  


During the past two years, members of the VLSI research team along with colleagues in academia and industry have been gathering up many original artifacts – archiving them at the Computer History Museum and scanning and posting many online. It's a work in progress, and whatever we can find we put in there.


The resulting VLSI Archive is bringing the old adventures back to life, and now includes things such as:


● The 1976 letter from Ivan Sutherland to Bert Sutherland that framed the research opportunity then at hand and proposed the Xerox PARC/Caltech collaboration to develop radically-improved VLSI design methods and EDA tools.


● The series of prepublication versions of the Mead-Conway text used to document, teach and evolve the new design methods and tools. Written on Alto personal computers at PARC and demand-printed on the newly-invented laser-printers there, they were used in trial-runs at several universities prior to publication of the text.



                                    [Pre-publication version 3, Aug '78]                                [Published version, fall '79]                                                   


The online archive also includes:


● The handwritten course notes for the first modern VLSI design course, taught at MIT in 1978.  These became the “Instructor’s Guide”, and with the “Guide to LSI Implementation” and the Mead-Conway text were used to spread the course to over 100 universities around the world.


● Many documents and notes from “MPC79”, the internet-based, rapid-chip-prototyping effort that implemented design projects at a dozen universities in 1979, and proved out the Mead-Conway methods. Included are documentation and chip-photos of the 124 design projects – projects that led to many innovations in chip architectures, some (for example Jim Clark’s Geometry Engine) leading to major startups such as SGI, Sun Microsystems and MIPS.


As a side note: demand for QTA chip prototyping later led to institutionalization of the MPC79 service as the MOSIS system – used for decades now to support chip prototyping by students and researchers in U.S. universities and industry – and MOSIS-like services later sprang up in many other countries too.




[MPC79 multi-project wafer, die, packaged chip]     [Geometry Engine prototype by Jim Clark]



The VLSI movement also started it’s very own VLSI Conferences, which helped build a cohesive, forward-looking research community, and short-intensive courses were offered (such as the one by VLSI Technology) to faculty preparing to teach VLSI design and to early adopters in companies eager to exploit the new methods.


EDA was a vital dimension of the VLSI revolution, and the archive includes key documents from the development of modern design tools – from the early beginnings in Doug Fairbairn’s and Jim Rowson’s work on ICARUS and Lynn’s invention of scalable design rules, to the specification of CIF 2.0 by Bob Sproull and Dick Lyon, to Randy Bryant’s work on MOSSIM, to John Ousterhout’s work on CAESAR and MAGIC, on to the startups of VLSI Technology, Cadence, Valid Logic, Daisy, Mentor Graphics, Viewlogic and more. 


The revolution also had its own magazine: Created by Doug Fairbairn and Jim Rowson, LAMBDA (later VLSI Design) showcased important new advances and played a key role in the propagation of the new design methods and design tools.




                 [ICARUS screen image, 1978]          [Cover page, first issue of LAMBDA, Jan. 1980]



As a result of all these wild happenings, the VLSI revolution really took off. Electronics Magazine spread the alert in a 1981 feature article, and as they say “the rest is history.”


You’ll sense the excitement of the times by browsing among the mementos, using the archive spreadsheet to access individual items. For further reading, see Lynn’s report “The MPC Adventures” and the National Research Council book Funding a Revolution, in which much of Chapter 4 is devoted to the VLSI work. 


On reflection, it’s clear there are many other adventures out there – stories as yet untold – carried only in the shared memories of the folks who’ve built our industry. It would be great if their treasured mementos could be gathered up and shared online too!